This is the first of a series of blog posts that I am calling Singing as Storytelling. When I was starting out as a singer, my first singing teacher told me: “If you’re lucky, the people who listen to you will say, ‘What a great voice!’, and ‘What a great musician!’. And if you’re really lucky, one day they will stop saying that, and they’ll start talking about the stories you tell, and the characters you bring to life, and how your performances change the listener.” Singers have to be good musicians, and they have to have solid vocal technique, but they become artists only when they truly understand lyrics and become (depending on the content of the lyric) either a storyteller or a character. These blogs introduce what I think are some outstanding examples of this.
‘Over the Rainbow’ started as a song in the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (although, amazingly, it almost didn’t make it into the final cut when the movie was released!). It won the Oscar that year for being the Best Original Song. The song works within the story of the film, but it also works independently of the musical, as a song about universal yearning for better times and a safer world – the reason it was adopted by the American armed forces in World War II. It was written by two Jewish men, sons of immigrants to the USA: Hyman Arluck (composer) and Isidore Hochberg (lyricist), better known as Harold Arlen and E.Y. (‘Yip’) Harburg. The song captures the mood of the Jewish people, on the eve of the Holocaust, yearning for a land they could call home, where the ‘clouds’ of war and persecution would be ‘far behind’, where ‘troubles melt’, away from the ‘chimney tops’ of the gas chambers and incinerators of the Nazis.
Here is the first outing of ‘Over The Rainbow’, sung by Judy Garland, aged 17, in the original 1939 movie. It is sweet, well sung and musical. But … it doesn’t plumb the depths and nuances of the lyric …
The film – and the song – catapaulted Judy Garland to stardom, and it became her signature song. Here she is singing it again, aged 33, in a TV special in 1955. Notice the extraordinary depth, subtelty and humanity she has developed in her interpretation 16 years after she first performed the song. (Don’t be put off by the constume and make-up – she performs this song straight after another number where she had to play a a tramp from the film ‘Easter Parade’!)
For me, this 1955 performance by Garland is the definitive version in terms of storytelling and character, and delivering the words.
Eva Cassidy did a memorable recording of this in 1992. This performance comes from January 1996; like Garland, she was 33 when she performed this (10 months before she died of cancer). Musically, it is a very sensitive and poignant performance. However, for me, it is makes a mess of the lyrics. For some reason, Cassidy deliberately breaks up the lines in odd places, and repositions weak syllables and unimportant words on climactic notes and downbeats. If this was an instrumental solo, it would be fabulous, but Cassidy has disregarded the genius of its composer and lyricist in her rendition of it as a song lyric, which I find frustrating. Even though I know the lyrics well, whenever I listen to Cassidy’s version, I get to the end of the song, and realise that I have not remotely been able to follow the emotional narrative of the song because of this disregard for lyrics, and their alignment with the contours of Arlen’s original melody.
Another very well known modern performance was by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole in 1988 (later recorded for his 1993 album with ukelele). The track has a hypnotic quality, but again, like with Cassidy’s version, there is nothing in the use of voice that suggests any appreciation for what the song is about, and Arlen’s beautifully designed melodic contours are put to one side in favour of Kamakawiwo’ole’s own, invented melody based on the chord sequence. Like with Cassidy’s version, I don’t follow the journey taken in the lyrics.
Here is another performance of the song, by Pink at the 2014 Oscars (the 75th anniversary of the song’s Oscar success). I include Pink’s version here as an example of how, in my view, not to sing it. She breathes, bizarrely, between ‘some’ and ‘where’, and then, even more unforgiveably, between ‘o-‘ and ‘-ver’. Why?! She makes a nonsense of the lyrics, and, indeed, of the English language. (Begins at 2:00)
Listen to Judy Garland’s 1955 performance again. After these strange performances by Cassidy, Kamakawiwo’ole and Pink, Garland’s version is a relief. Suddenly, the song makes sense again. It has depth, drama, humanity, and purpose. The song matters as an expression of a universal truth about human yearning.